For those who read and write about feminism and do much of that work online, the past year or so has had a particular tone to it. The word that some would use is “toxic.” That is the word that journalist Michelle Goldberg uses in her piece in The Nation, ”Feminism’s Toxic Twitter Wars.”
In the piece, Goldberg writes about racial tensions within current feminism, particularly as topics related to women and race are written about on Twitter, Facebook and through blogging. She explains how white women are increasingly called out online for not checking their privilege, both by women of color (WOC) and other white women who purport to be allies of WOC. The tone of these call-outs sometimes involves biting sarcasm, dismissiveness and accusations. For example, the hashtag #whitetears or the phrase “white tears” is often used when a white person disagrees with a person of color. The implication is that because you are white and have a disagreeing opinion, you must be crying over your racial privilege being challenged. Sometimes this is true; sometimes it’s not.
An additional issue cited by Goldberg is how, over social media, information that is dispersed in good faith is sometimes completely incorrect. For example, Goldberg wrote about how the Barnard report “#Femfuture: Online Revolution” assessing the future of online feminism was roundly criticized for being too white — despite the fact that nine women of color out of 21 total participated in a conference that led to the paper. Jamia Wilson, who is on the leadership team for #FemFuture and is Black, laughingly recalled a white feminist “whitesplaining” to her over Twitter how no women of color had been involved.
The Nation piece is, not surprisingly, already hugely divisive on Twitter (amongst the very people it is written about). Feminists have been tweeting their support or criticism all day. It will spawn many a reaction thinkpiece. My own thoughts boil down to this: damn, this really needed to be said.
Much of the language used in the pieces refers to “listening,” “educating” and “checking your privilege.” No one would disagree that progressives, including feminists, need to do all of these things. Talk less; listen more.
It’s dismaying to me that when I listen, sometimes what I am hearing are blanket statements about how groups of people behave and think. “WOC” or sometimes “Black women” or “Asian women” or “Latina women” are referred to as one monolithic group while “white women” are referred to as another. I’ve long wondered why ostensibly progressive voices have been able to refer to people as monolithic groups for so long; it completely diminishes and erases the nuances within these groups. Just who do you mean by “white feminists” or “white women”? It means a very specific group of college-educated white feminists who get paid to write for Slate, or The New Yorker, or The Atlantic. It doesn’t mean, I’ve noticed, poor white women, a marginalized class group that gets lumped in with the more general “white women.” The same goes for women/womyn who are not cis privileged. It’s frustrating to watch this obfuscation happen in what is supposedly an intersectional fourth-wave feminist movement. Alas, these blanket statements are how some feminists on Twitter communicate ideas in the name of educating others. As Goldberg writes, “Online … intersectionality is overwhelmingly about chastisement and rooting out individual sin.”
I shouldn’t even have to write this but I will: some WOC agree with my views on issues related to race, sex and feminism, while some white women and I strongly disagree on those same issues. That’s not a reality that is presented in much of the discussion happening online about intersectionality. Instead, it is presented as you’re-either-with-”us”-or-you’re-against-”us.” However, writes Goldberg, “Preening displays of white feminist abjection … are not the same as respect.” She then quotes the founder and former editor-in-chief of Jezbel, Anna Holmes, who is Black:
“What’s disgusting and disturbing to me is that I see some of the more intellectually dishonest arguments put forth by women of color being legitimized and performed by white feminists, who seem to be in some sort of competition to exhibit how intersectional they are. There are these Olympian attempts on the part of white feminists to underscore and display their ally-ship in a way that feels gross and dishonest and, yes, patronizing.”
I would go a step further and question what some feminists mean by solidarity. As impactful as the hashtag #solidarityisforwhitewomen was and is (which was started by Mikki Kendall, a feminist quoted and discussed at length in the Nation piece), I often wondered what the “solidarity” she and the hashtag’s other users were referring to in particular. As I see it, “mainstream” feminism is a lot more fractious than the ‘white women who worship at the altar of Jessica Valenti-only’ movement that is presented.
The further irony here is that acknowledging these nuances — and the accuracy that comes with that acknowledgment — is actually what is vital to genuinely educating each other. Bad faith assumptions and blanket statements are not constructive or productive for feminism. In fact, it’s intellectually lazy. I don’t think it helps feminism as a whole and it certainly doesn’t help privileged groups to educate themselves. To be completely honest, when I read sweeping statements being made about what “white women” think or what “WOC” think, I now tune out. When I see one feminist bullying another feminist — or often, a small but vocal group of feminists bullying another feminist — I tune out as well. Condescension is not how I choose to educate myself.
The toxicity in online feminism contributes to the tuning out of the privileged folks who we all want to be listening. It’s a despairing twist after white feminists have shut out WOC feminist for so long, straight cis women have shut out trans and lesbian women for so long, and men have shut us all out for so long. The solidarity that I believe in is one where we make an effort, for our own betterment and each other’s. It’s one where we listen and learn and don’t jump to conclusions or interpretations of bad faith. It’s one where people who make a good faith effort — be they male or female, straight or gay, cis or trans, white or biracial or WOC — are given the benefit of the doubt. It’s a solidarity that is, above all, kind.
It’s disappointing how easy it is to understand why more women and men are not drawn to getting involved in feminism. Holmes herself is quoted as saying she’s glad she does not edit a women’s blog online right now. She called the state of affairs “depressing.” A quote from Brittney Cooper, a co-founder of the Black feminist blog Crunk Feminist Collective, within the middle of the piece, struck me as particularly sad: “I’m not sure black women are benefitting from the toxicity.”
[Image of woman typing via Shutterstock]
Email me at Jessica@TheFrisky.com. Follow me on Twitter.